After our daughter Meredith was born, our pediatrician came by the birthing room for a first checkup. The doctor told us, “She’s perfect.” Well, I could have told her that. Joy and I had already begun the misguided journey that many parents take.
We assumed that our daughter was perfect and that our role was to do whatever was necessary to keep from messing her up. All of our energies were to be devoted to building on perfection.
It was only a matter of months before we discovered how misguided we had been. Another pediatrician in the same practice discovered an irregular heartbeat and referred us to a pediatric cardiologist. He told us, “She has a hole in her heart. She needs open-heart surgery.” She was not perfect.
That was the beginning of our most significant lesson in parenting, in love, in being human. As it turns out, it’s also one of the lessons of the manger.
To paraphrase Brené Brown, we are all born imperfect. And each of us is going to stay that way. Moreover, we are all hardwired for struggle. We will make mistakes, get our hearts broken, take wrong turns, disappoint ourselves, let other people down, suffer loss, and wonder when the rest of the world will discover what a fraud we are.
Joy and I discovered that our mission as parents is not to apply successful parenting techniques in order to produce perfect, happy children. Instead, you might summarize our parenting mission this way: get connected and stay that way no matter what. Suit up, show up, and love that kid no matter what the day throws at you, what that kid throws at you, or how any of this is going to make you feel.
Strictly speaking, that’s the core human mission. God sent us into this messy world to connect, to have the courage and the grace to keep loving in the face of uncertainty. To dare to accept the emotional exposure that connection with someone else always brings with it.
That is the message of the manger. God created us in his image. In the birth of Jesus we see that God is all about connection. But what how God connects might surprise you.
Some tell the story like this:
God created us to be perfect. After all, the perfect God could not possibly get his hands dirty with anyone less than perfect. We turned out to be quite a disappointment. We positively wreak of imperfection. So, to salvage our relationship, God sent his Son Jesus to clean us up, to make us presentable, to make us perfect so that God could bear the sight of us.
The manger tells a different story about God and about us:
God did not make us to be perfect. He made us to be holy, to live into his image. God is love, and so love is the point of human life. And just in case you haven’t noticed, love is messy. God didn’t come to clean up the mess. He came to make it holy. To make it the holy mess he had in mind in the first place.
Let me explain.
Being human is a challenge. Being fully human—living a life marked by joy and creativity, a life awash in meaning and energized by purpose—we have to love in a way that resembles how God loves.
The manger tells us exactly what that looks like.
God doesn’t lack anything, so he’s not trying to fill some hole in his heart with somebody else’s approval or applause or comfort. In other words, he doesn’t become a human so that he can get from us the love that he craves.
Instead, God reaches out to us to give us the love that we need. It’s risky business.
After all, to connect with us makes God himself vulnerable. Our lives are uncertain. We laugh and we cry. We know tender intimacy and lonely isolation. Joy will fill our hearts to bursting and sorrow will break it. We must choose a path without knowing all of its twists and turns or even precisely what the destination will look like.
When God connects with us, God exposes himself emotionally to the full depth and breadth of our lives. God, you see, is love. And that’s precisely what love means. To commit yourself so thoroughly to someone else’s life that your own happiness is forever bound up with theirs.
Like I said, this is a challenge for us. That’s because you can love like this only when you already feel worthy of love and belonging.
People who experience the greatest levels of joy and creativity, tranquility and love are the most connected, but they do not look to the people and the things beyond themselves to feel lovable and worthy. People who feel worthy of love and respect give love away without hoping to get something in return.
Now, here’s the problem. Most of us assume that to be worthy of love means that we have to be lovable. There must be something about us that attracts or earns or achieves the love we need.
More than a few of us believe that you have to be some form of perfect to be loved. You have to be at the top of your career or at the head of your class. You have to be sexy or well-dressed or athletically exceptional or financially successful or on the front cover of People magazine.
Or at least, you have to be good enough not to be at the bottom of the heap.
Whether we’re burdened with perfectionism or just striving to be good enough on some scale, rejection waits in the wings. As long as we think of love as something that we have to attract, we will always be haunted by the thought that we may one day no longer be attractive enough to be worthy of love.
It doesn’t really do any good to say that you have to love yourself first. Love doesn’t work that way. Love is something that we always receive from someone beyond ourselves. It’s about connection with an other. Belonging to another by the other’s full assent.
In the manger, Jesus tells us that we belong to him simply because he wants it that way. He loves us first so that we can love only as the beloved can.
Love is messy business. Imperfect beings connecting to each other heart to heart. God designed our lives to be just this kind of holy mess. To be honest, we have made our life an unholy mess in a myriad of ways. But Luke’s birth narrative highlights one such way in particular.
We have to go back a few verses in the story to the pregnant Mary. She outlines our predicament and tells us what God is doing about it in the baby she carries in her womb:
“He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty. ” (Luke 1:51-53; BCP)
We are all in this together. From God’s perspective, there is no distinction between mighty and lowly. That is all our doing. We carve the world up into mighty and lowly by narrowly pursuing our self-interest. In other words, we think that we have succeeded, that we have done well, when we make a better place for ourselves in the world even when others suffer want, loneliness, hunger, ignorance, and oppression.
In Jesus, God himself became one of the lowly. He leaned into the suffering, the pain, the violence, and the hunger, not just to experience the misery, but to transform it into joy, peace, and contentment. And that is exactly what he wants us to do. To seek to make the world a better place for us all.
God wants us to lead with our hearts, just as he does in Jesus. Our full plate makes us mindful of another’s hunger. The roof over our head reminds us that some are homeless. When we struggle to find a place for one more book on our bookshelves, we think of those who cannot read. At the gym we remember that some suffer from untreated high blood pressure or diabetes.
We don’t feel guilty. We feel gratitude and compassion. Our hearts break. Our hearts grow. We change the world. It’s messy business. But it’s a holy mess.